Close contacts of coronavirus patients are being asked to return to work in the health system, provided they have no symptoms.
The Irish Nurse and Midwives Organisation has said 7,000 healthcare workers are now absent because they either have the virus or are close contacts.
That figure has shot up from around 4,000 just yesterday and 3,000 at the end of last week.
The HSE said close contacts are being called back in due to the risk to patient safety posed by staff shortages.
It said the staff will undergo additional monitoring twice a day and will be prioritised for testing.
"If they have a negative test result, they can return to work," it said.
There are currently around 1,750 COVID-19 patients in Irish hospitals, with 158 people in intensive care with their symptoms.
In a tweet this morning, the HSE chief Paul Reid said virus levels are now “beyond comprehension” and the HSE was taking “emergency actions to sustain this within a level of control.”
Our hospitals are treating 1,750 people with #COVID19 & 158 critically ill in ICU. This is a level beyond comprehension. But to assue everyone, our healthcare teams are taking emergency actions to sustain this within a level of control. We appreciate your support. @HSELive
— Paul Reid (@paulreiddublin) January 13, 2021
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, Trinity Professor Tomás Ryan said there are “reasons to be a lot more optimistic this week than we were a week or two ago.”
“It looks like the R number may be starting to come down,” he said.
“It is not clear that the R number is below one yet but it well could be. We are kind of half blind of course, because we are not testing close contacts and there is some ambiguity about the way we look at trends because of the backlog.
“It is possible the R number may be just below one but that is not really ideal because with such a large number of cases, we would much rather see the number far below one.
“When you have a large number of daily cases, even being at one or slightly above one can still lead to a lot more cases."
Professor Ryan said the new variant should force a new strategy for dealing with the virus.
“It is 50% more transmissible than the standard variant we had in Ireland and it is clear that it has become prevalent here,” he said.
He said the country could be facing months of rolling lockdowns without a new approach.
“If you have the Government strategy - which is rolling lockdowns as we have seen, you go from Level Three to Level Five and back again - that could actually become a worse strategy where you are effectively living in Level Five just to keep schools open,” he said.
“On the other hand, if you want society to open. If you want things to get back to normal in general, then you have to bring all the virus numbers down to single digits so we can then manage it through test, trace isolate which we can’t do right now.”
He said Government should now aim for “one hard lockdown” to bring things under control for good.
“We are saying make this lockdown our last lockdown,” he said. “We are saying one hard lockdown to get cases down to very low numbers so we can open everything up as much as possible for the rest of the pandemic.”
He said it is too early to say when schools can safely reopen, noting that “schools are safe when the community is safe.”
“I know it is a disappointing answer but we just don’t know because we don’t know enough about the new variant so far,” he said.
“We don’t know what it will take to suppress it. No country on Earth has so far succeeded in suppressing this variant – we haven’t had an opportunity to do so.
“But the question is more complicated than that. It is not just about how quickly schools are safe, it is about how quickly we want to suppress both variants.”
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